Executives from Strikeforce and Showtime announced Thursday that the two sides have agreed on a new contract to extend their partnership. Contrary to recent speculation, Strikeforce isn’t going anywhere. MMA Insider Alex Donno looks at the future of the company, and the present, tonights Strikeforce: Melendez vs Masvidal on Showtime.
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When the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa LLC, purchased Strikeforce back in March, most everyone in the MMA world assumed that Strikeforce’s days were numbered. Despite Dana White’s “business as usual” mantra, many of Strikeforce’s biggest stars were poached by the UFC over the following months. And then of course, you had to wonder whether or not White could do business with Showtime. White’s relationship with former Showtime Sports boss Ken Herschman was rocky at best, but when Herschman left Showtime in October, that likely set the table for negotiations to improve. The new deal will see Showtime air up to eight events per year, and previously unaired preliminary fights will now be shown on Showtime Extreme. It’s a big step for what looked like a dying promotion just a couple months ago.
The only casualty will be the Strikeforce heavyweight division. It will be permanently disbanded some time next year, and we can assume that the few worthwhile heavyweights left on their roster will be absorbed into the UFC. According to White and Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, Josh Barnett and Daniel Cormier will still fight in early 2012 to crown the Heavyweight Grand Prix champion. That fight will indeed take place under the Strikeforce banner, and then the tournament winner will fight for the promotion one last time against an undisclosed opponent. White cites a lack of depth at heavyweight as the reason for cutting it. That point is hard to argue, as it really doesn’t make much sense for the UFC and Strikeforce to divide such a thin division between two promotions. Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum have already made the jump from Strikeforce to the UFC. Once the UFC adds Barnett, Cormier, and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva to their roster, it will clearly be the deepest heavyweight class in promotional history. As for the women’s division, it’s been confirmed that both female weight classes, featherweight and bantamweight, will continue.
With contract negotiations out of the way, Strikeforce can focus on putting on a great show this weekend. On Saturday, December 17th, lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez will defend his title against dangerous challenger Jorge Masvidal. Many consider Melendez the best pound for pound fighter outside the UFC. He’s won five straight fights overall, and has looked virtually invincible in recent wins over Japanese imports Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki. What makes Melendez so dangerous is the fact that he can beat you in any and every facet of MMA. He possesses a dominant wrestling base, a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt under Cesar Gracie, and an ever improving striking game. Years ago, striking was seen as his weakest skill set, but lately he’s shown that he can stand in the pocket and trade punches effectively with anyone. In his first round TKO win over Kawajiri, he showed how dangerous his elbows are. Prior to that fight, elbows on the ground hadn’t been allowed in Strikeforce. And it’s important to note that Melendez has a seemingly endless gas tank. On paper, he should have no problem going five full rounds if Masvidal pushes him the distance.
Even though Melendez’ standup game deserves praise, he may give up a slight striking advantage to his opponent. Jorge Masvidal is a skilled counter puncher with a long, snapping jab. He mixes in leg kicks well, and has shown a knack for setting up takedowns flawlessly with his strikes. Melendez likely has more pure knockout power between the two, but he could get picked apart by Masvidal if he allows him to settle down and find his timing. Masvidal is a master of mixing up his attack. He uses every striking weapon available, including knees and elbows from the clinch. The key for Melendez to overcome Masvidal’s diverse attack will be to push the pace. As the better conditioned fighter, Melendez needs to come forward constantly and put the pressure on. He did so effectively against Kawajiri. For Mavsidal, it will be paramount to stay off his back. Against a lethal ground fighter like Melendez, he’ll best be served by keeping the fight in the area where his skills are strongest, and that’s the striking range. In the standup, he will use kicks and jabs to establish distance. He’s the longer of the two, and will find success only if he keeps the hard hitting Melendez outside the pocket.
If Melendez wins, speculation will resume as to whether or not the UFC will sign him. As clearly the best lightweight outside the promotion, a clash between Melendez and the Frankie Edgar vs. Benson Henderson winner would captivate the MMA world. He may be viewing this bout with Masvidal as a UFC audition.
In the co-main event, the baddest woman on the planet, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos returns from an 18 month absence. She will defend her featherweight title against highly touted Hiroko Yamanaka. Yamanaka is regarded as the number two fighter in the weight class, but there’s still likely a large gap in power and pure physicality between her and Cyborg. It’s unlikely that Yamanaka can handle Cyborg’s aggression. Cyborg is known for breaking her opponent’s will with an onslaught of Muay Thai and unparalleled knockout power. It will be interesting to see if this fight stays competitive for more than a few minutes. Yamanaka will have one advantage, though. Her height. She’s 5’11’, and could potentially give the 5’8” Cyborg some problems if she establishes her distance in the striking game properly.
The remainder of the Showtime televised card will feature an interesting light heavyweight clash between Gegard Mousasi and Ovince St. Preux, and a lightweight tilt between KJ Noons and Billy Evangelista. Despite being two years younger than St. Preux (they are 26 and 28, respectively), Mousasi has fought more than twice as many times, and has faced tougher competition. He’s a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champ and former DREAM middleweight champ. St. Preux, a former University of Tennessee linebacker, has dominated his past eight opponents. But he’s never faced anyone as dangerous as Mousasi. Mousasi possesses a K-1 level striking game and a dangerous submission attack. Historically, his greatest weakness is his defensive wrestling, but there’s no guarantee that St. Preux, who hasn’t wrestled since high school, can exploit that. St. Preux is a physical and athletic striker, but the technical advantage will be hugely in Mousasi’s favor.
In KJ Noons, fans will get to watch one of the better pure technical boxers in the lightweight division. Standing in the pocket and trading with him is a recipe for disaster, so you can expect Billy Evangelista to avoid such a strategy like poison. Noons holds a notable win over Nick Diaz back in ’07, and despite losing to Nick in the rematch, was able to go five full rounds with him. If Evangelista is to find any success here, he must use movement and angles to avoid the inside striking attack of Noons. A few takedowns would also go a long way, as Noons has never been stellar while fighting off his back.
Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal airs tonight on Showtime at 10:30pm Eastern and 10:30pm Pacific.